Tag Archives: design

ASQ Asks: What Can We Do to Encourage STEM? I Say: STEAM

zome-2In his March 2015 post, ASQ CEO Paul Borawski asks “What can we do to encourage the next generation of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) professionals?” My answer will be short today because I’ve been actively working on that for the past several months with a senior capstone project team (Cassidy Moellers, Dylan Chance, and Robert Spinoza) at James Madison University – we’re getting ready to finalize the project in the next couple of weeks, and submit an academic paper to the STEAM Journal about how you can use art to catalyze interest and engagement in STEM. [Postscript: Check out our published paper in the STEAM Journal — Radziwill, N. M., Benton, M. C., & Moellers, C. (2015). From STEM to STEAM: Reframing what it means to learn. The STEAM Journal2(1), 3.]

So much innovation in STEM is fueled by imagination and exploration, and in my opinion, we don’t communicate that very well to younger people. A great gateway drug for this purpose is art. There’s even a movement underway to expand out vision of STEM, and more tightly and more essentially integrate aesthetics, form, design, and fun into what we do via STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math).

STEAM doesn’t advocate just doing the arts alongside more traditional science and engineering. It actually requires that we look towards how we can use STEAM to create meaning for ourselves and our communities. In other words, it can help us get our mind off of science and engineering to understand and control the world around us – and focus more on how beautiful and intriguing things are that we can learn in those domains.

The picture above is the interactive zonohedral dome (or “zome”) that our students created specifically to engage others in the fun of integrated science and engineering. Here’s how they summarize their project:

As our communities expand rapidly, both physically and digitally, we can lose our sense of connection and togetherness. Interactive and participatory art interventions cultivate community by provoking engagement in unexpected areas. In this project, the prototype for an interactive zonohedral dome (or “zome”) was constructed as a proof of concept for an art intervention to engage students in collaborative STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math ) learning, by creating feelings of connection with the technology and with each other. Consequently, it demonstrates the values of the STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) movement in education. Design elements (and an assessment approach) were selected based on a comprehensive literature review which focused on the aspects of engagement that would boost participants’ interest in and proficiency with STEM subjects.
 
A zome is a structure that supports itself solely due to its geometry. No nails or glue are used in the construction. The interactive nature of the structure emerges from sensors that detect occupancy, with music and lights automatically responding to the pattern of people entering and leaving the zome. Many technologies were combined to create this experience, including SketchUp (to design the components), Makerbot Replicator II (to build the structure), Arduino (to detect occupancy via phototransistors), LightShowPi (to generate Fast Fourier transforms of music files and control the frequency and amplitude of audio communicated via LEDs), and RaspberryPi (a microcomputer to run LightShowPi and translate the signals from the Arduino to play audio at pre-designated decibel levels). 
We’ll post a video of the zome in action very soon. It’s so fun to look at, and play with… and what better way to learn programming than to make a structure respond to the presence and motion of the people around it?

Quality of Art & Design in the Digital Age

doug-mirror(Image credit: Doug Buckley of http://hyperactive.to)

In a December article in Wired, John Maeda talks about how the art community’s sensibilities were recently challenged by a decision made by the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) to include videogames in a new category of art there. Although the examples were acquired on the basis that they demonstrate good interaction design, some art critics claim that videogames are not art – that they do not, as per Jonathon Jones, represent an “act of personal imagination.”

Whereas design is focused on solutions, art (according to Maeda) is focused more on creating questions – “the deep probing of purpose and meaning that sometimes takes us backward and sideways to reveal which way ‘forward’ actually is.So should artifacts like video games be accepted into an art collection? The answer, according to Maeda, comes down to how the institution defines quality:

When I was invited to a MoMA Board meeting a couple of years ago to field questions about the future of art with Google Chairman Eric Schmidt, we were asked about how MoMA should make acquisitions in the digital age. Schmidt answered, Graduate-style, with just one word: “quality.”

And that answer has stuck with me even today, because he was absolutely right – quality trumps all, whatever the medium and tools are: paints or pixels, canvas or console.

The problem is that what “quality” represents in the digital age hasn’t been identified much further than heuristic-metrics like company IPOs and the market share of well-designed technology products. It’s even more difficult to describe quality when it comes to something as non-quantitative – and almost entirely qualitative – as art and design.

Last month, I shared what I’ve discovered over the past 7 years, as I’ve aimed to answer the question What is Quality? By applying the ISO 9000/Mitra perspective that I described, the MoMA dilemma (and others like it) may be easier to resolve. My approach centers around the ISO 9000 definition that quality is the “totality of characteristics of an entity that bears upon its ability to satisfy stated and implied needs.”

These stated and implied needs translate into quality attributes.

For art, the object of art is the entity. If that art is functional or interactive, then there are stated needs that relate to its ability to function within a given context or towards a given purpose. These may relate to quality attributes like conformance, reliability, or durability. (If the piece is not functional or interactive, then there are quite possibly no stated needs to meet). However, there will always be implied needs which relate to the meaning and purpose of the art; does the object help achieve the goals of art in general, or of the individual interacting with or observing the art?

Similarly, since art is in many ways a personal experience, does the object help the individual by inspiring, connecting, engaging, encouraging, illuminating, clarifying, catalyzing, transforming, encouraging, or revealing aspects of the self and/or the environment? Does the object stimulate an emotional experience? (Any of these aspects might indicate that the object of art is meeting quality attributes that are related to implied needs.)

A subset of Mitra’s model is relevant to examining the quality of art and design. Note that to assess the quality of an example of art, such as a videogame, we might focus more on the objective quality and the consequences of quality, because the antecedents will be more useful if we are attempting to improve quality over time:

Antecedents of Quality (conditions that must be in place to quality to be achieved): contextual factors (e.g. whether the environment/culture – or enough people within it – are ready to recognize the piece as art), quality improvement process (what mechanisms are in place to continually improve the ability of the artist/team to deliver high quality work, e.g. practice or evaluating other artwork), and capabilities (whether the artist has the skill to create and share the art).

Objective/Product Quality: This asks “how well does the entity meet the stated and implied needs?” Does it meet all of them, or just some of them, and to what degree or extent?

Consequences of Quality: This is the combined effect of the quality perception process (whether the piece meets each individual’s standards for value) and the broader impacts that the piece has on individuals and/or society in general. Quality perception is, necessarily, an individual process – whereas broader impacts involves factors such as how many people did this piece impact, and to what extent.

So, are videogames art? First, we have to check to make sure they meet their stated needs – and since they were produced and successfully distributed by companies to people who played and enjoyed those games, we can assume that the stated needs were met. So, what are the implied needs of videogames as art? This depends, like many things, on how you select and define those stated needs. Ultimately, you want to take into account the emotional and transformative impact of the piece on one person, and then across individual and demographic designations to see the impact of the piece within and between social groups.

IMHO, I was personally inspired to learn more about computer programming before I turned 10 by playing lots and lots of Pac-Man and Space Invaders. I was an empowered fighter in a world of power pellets, ghosts, strawberries, and bananas, and so were lots of my friends. We connected with one another, and with the era in history that is the 1980’s, as we do today whenever someone reflects on those games or the arcades in which they were played. Because the games inspired in me an emotional experience, that today is tinged with nostalgia, I’d say that videogames are just as much art as the beautiful cars of the 1950’s that catalyzed the same feelings in people of that generation.

Kudos to MoMA for casting their net wider.

What do you all think? How can we effectively assess the quality of art and design?

Does PowerPoint Make You Stupid?

I remember a few years ago hearing about a study that claimed using Microsoft PowerPoint makes you dumb. On the basis that effective communication can either enhance or hinder quality improvement efforts, I decided to look back today and see a) where that information came from, and b) if it’s accurate. Given that over 400 million people used PowerPoint in 2003, the number of people who use it today (or other comparable presentation software, like OpenOffice) is probably even larger.

A December 14, 2003 article in the New York Times referred to a NASA report which examined the root causes of the Columbia disaster. Among other issues, PowerPoint was implicated:

”It is easy to understand how a senior manager might read this PowerPoint slide and not realize that it addresses a life-threatening situation,” the [NASA] board [reviewing the project] sternly noted.

My advice would be for senior managers preparing these presentations to communicate more deliberately, in words like “THIS IS A LIFE-THREATENING CONDITION!! IMMEDIATE ACTION REQUIRED!!” Unfortunately, that might be perceived as “too easy” or alternatively, the senior managers might not have wanted to admit a problem for fear that they would lose their funding. In any case, respect for human life should come above all, and should certainly be a reason for bare, clear communication – regardless of whether the message is delivered by PowerPoint, in person, or as part of a 40-lb., 500-page treatise.

The same New York Times article references a brochure by Edward Tufte, a well-regarded information theorist who has written a book on effective data visualization and gives seminars across the country on that subject. You can get his brochure, The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint, at AmazonAccording to the New York Times:

Ultimately, Tufte concluded, PowerPoint is infused with ”an attitude of commercialism that turns everything into a sales pitch.”

I would think that the burden of communication is on the communicator. There are many times where we only have a few minutes or an hour to convey a complex message, and for this, PowerPoint can be effective. However, if there’s a message that cannot be conveyed in simple terms, it’s up to the communicator to say so, and in really simple language, e.g. “this is a grave concern, and you need to review the complete report, now!” Easier said than done, I know.

But a far more complete review of the Tufte brochure at http://contactsheet.org notes that Tufte specifically argues against this position, noting that communicators are just victims of the product’s lack of user-centered design. Is the criticism of PowerPoint accurate? Possibly – I didn’t read the in-depth study so I don’t have a reason to believe or disbelieve the causal link between PowerPoint and stupidity. However, the recommendation ignores one critical element: that if the material is indeed comprehensively described in a much larger memo, people may or may not read and comprehend it.

However, let’s say you’re a patient in the hospital facing a life or death diagnosis, and a team of physicians is charged with solving your mystery. Do you want them making a decision based on the PowerPoint version of your case, or on all 800 pages of your medical history? Personally, I’d vote for the latter. But I would also insist that the medical team be given appropriate time to review, internalize, and reflect on the information before making a decision. This is a step that unfortunately has become a luxury in many organizations! Bottom line – the burden still remains with the communicator for now.

Buss (2006) doesn’t argue with the premise, and just writes about ways to use PowerPoint effectively. His article provides five tips from a professor in the Graduate School of Business at SUNY Albany. Starting with the premise that PowerPoint is ubiquitous in training sessions and presentations, the author first recommends that we subvert the linear “title and text” format that everyone is accustomed to because it does not capture peoples’ attention. Though this point is a sweeping generalization that is not substantiated, one opinion of the author is to remedy the situation by “switch[ing] the display order of the presentation. Present supporting data with points on the first slide and show the data and draw the conclusions on the next.” He also suggests that PowerPoint first be used to outline a message, and then a report should be written to expound upon the details, rather than the other way around. Buss also recommends to keep the information per slide short (though he does not suggest a “good” length for training slides), and provides the clichéd guidance that one should not merely read out his or her slides. The best advice is given in the author’s fifth point, where he recognizes that the presentation begins well before you start talking, and ends until your meeting is over. He suggests that the presenter mix with the audience to get a sense of their needs, and target those needs in the spoken presentation.

A related article, discussing Talking Heads vocalist David Byrne’s view of PowerPoint as art, is also entertaining.


Buss, W.C. (2006). Stop death by Powerpoint. Training & Development, March 2006, p. 20-21.